Once upon a time, What If...? had a very specific concept. Take the Marvel Universe just as it is, then change one little element and see what followed. "What if, in Amazing #1, Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?". "What if Gwen Stacy had not died?". And so on. Now, as far as I can tell, the rule is that there are no rules. Create an alternate dimension. Flash Thompson treats Pete with more disdain in college than he ever did in High School. J. Jonah Jameson has the Scorpion's home telephone number. And Mary Jane Watson doesn't appear to exist. Put it all together and what have you got? I don't know if there's a name for it but I wouldn't invite it over for supper.
For those who don't know, the template that Jonathan Couper provides for these reviews has the word "who" in brackets, following the designation for writer, penciler, and inker. The reviewer is supposed to replace the "who" with the appropriate names. I almost left the "who"s in their places. It would have meant as much as the above names do. Who are these guys? Am I supposed to know? Or is this now New Talent Showcase, Marvel Style?
Now, here's the plot of the issue: On this alternate world, Spider-Man is deeply involved with Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat. They go out crime-fighting together. But while the Cat has revealed her identity to the world, Spidey still argues that he can't. It would put his Aunt May in danger. At the same time, Peter agonizes over the continued treatment of Spider-Man as a criminal while the Cat is treated like a celebrity.
Out of love for Pete, Felicia concocts a scheme so dopey, it would make your ears bleed. She steals a spare pair of Spidey's web-shooters, then pretends to seduce the bullying Flash Thompson, giving him the shooters to join her on her swing through the night, making sure to travel past the Daily Bugle and J. Jonah Jameson's window. The Spidey-hating publisher thinks he is seeing our hero without his costume and he uses his journalistic resources to quickly identify Flash. Now the world thinks Flash is Spidey, which was Felicia's plan. (What was the point of this plan? Uh... so Pete won't worry about being unmasked anymore? Uh... to get revenge on Flash? Uh... there is no reason but without it, we have no story?)
Flash enjoys being mistaken for the Wall Crawler but he doesn't enjoy Mac Gargan, the Scorpion coming along and kidnapping him. Gargan puts Flash in some standard comic-book deathtrap with a fraying rope and some dripping acid. The Cat arrives to rescue Flash but ends up joining him in the deathtrap instead.
While the Scorpion goes to the Daily Bugle to kill Jameson (and encountering the real Spidey there.), Felicia frees herself and Flash. Spidey takes out the Scorpion but is forced by Jameson to unmask before Jonah will reveal where Flash is being held captive. (Does using an alternate world mean that everyone is free to act out of character?) Before the Black Cat can rush in to tell him that she and Flash are safe, Spidey unmasks in front of a surprised J. Jonah Jameson, changing both of their lives forever and... that... is... that.
I must confess to not having read What If...? in quite some time so I am a little unclear as to its purpose. Is it to present exciting stories that do not fit in regular continuity? Is it to allow a place for new writers and artists to fiddle with the Marvel Universe without messing anything up? This issue feels like the latter. Am I supposed to know who Lysa Hawkins and Eric Battle are? Are they the stars of the future or the flashes in the pan?
Is it worth telling Lysa that Flash, Jonah, and Felicia are way out of character, that the plot depends upon an event (Flash developing instant spider-ability to use Peter's web-shooters) that is improbable at best, and that the story ends at the exact moment when we finally want to see what happens next? (And even in an alternate universe, there is no excuse for that.) Is it worth pointing out to Eric that his art seems inspired by Joe Bennett's style before Joe Bennett matured and got beyond this style of artwork? Is it worth mentioning to the editors that their hopes of reeling in the young readers (at least I assume this story is geared to young readers) are probably thwarted by showing Spider-Man and the Black Cat smooching on the cover?
I'm sorry but making it an "imaginary story" is no excuse for being sloppy (And can we refrain from printing "The World's Greatest Comics" on issues like this? It might give the whole industry a bad name.)
One web. I'm trying to be nice, but that is the best I can do.